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September Specimen Spotlight: Targeting Triple Negative Breast Cancer with Immunotherapy

October 12, 2016

breast cancer ribbon

As we continue observance of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, we thought it timely to share an order we fulfilled last month for scientists working on a personalized treatment for a particularly challenging subset of the disease – triple negative breast cancer. This month’s Specimen Spotlight highlights matched sets of fresh tumor tissue, normal adjacent tissue, and buffy coat (anticoagulated samples containing mostly white blood cells and platelets) we were able to procure from triple negative breast cancer patients.

A particularly aggressive form of the disease, triple negative breast cancer occurs in 10-20% of breast cancer patients and is harder to target and treat with conventional interventions. Tumors in patients who are diagnosed with triple negative breast cancer do not have the three most common types of receptors tied to breast cancer growth: estrogen receptors, progesterone receptors, and HER2 receptors. As these sites are the usual targets for hormone therapy or chemotherapy, their absence requires a different approach. Hormone therapy becomes impossible and chemotherapy, while an option, cannot be targeted in the usual way.

The matched sets we procured are being used by a leading cancer immunotherapy company to develop a targeted triple negative breast cancer treatment at the genetic level. Each individual’s cancer genome presents differently, and that genome dictates the creation of what are known as tumor-specific neo-antigens (TSNAs), proteins that reside in a person’s cancer cells that can be targeted by their immune system. By studying the genomic profiles of the tumors, along with information from the buffy coats, scientists are working to develop truly personalized vaccines that fight the cancer with synthetic TSNAs matching the TSNAs a cancer patient’s body is already producing, intensifying the response of tumor-specific T cells by the immune system.

The research that is being conducted could not be a finer example of personalized medicine, as the approach is truly specific to an N of 1, with no patient’s tumor DNA the same as another’s. For women facing a historically non-targetable disease, the potential implications of this work are profound, not only due to the treatability, but also due to the fact that debilitating chemotherapy is avoided.

As we discussed in our very first Specimen Spotlight, cancer immunotherapy research is burgeoning at the moment with the promise of using compounds organic to the body to fight cancer. Procuring these matched sets allowed us at iSpecimen to play a role in this transformational treatment approach, and share it during a month in which patients, providers, researchers, and activists alike are working tirelessly to shine a spotlight on the breast cancer epidemic.